Symbolism in Art and Comics via Seaguy and Caravaggio


This week saw the third and last issue of Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewarts’ Seaguy, Slaves of Mickey Eye. After reading the issue, I fell immediately into a deep sleep wherein I had the oddest dreams. The details of the dreams are hazy, but what I do remember is that moment upon half waking where I thought “It’s just like being in Seaguy, it all makes sense.” and for a moment it all did. I didn’t have to think what the symbolism was, or analyze the character’s dialogue, or even think for a second about it, because every odd symbol and story referenced was suddenly crystal clear to me.

Now obviously this eerily clunky looking comic was filled with creepy imagery, using all sorts of simplistic analogies to tell the story without stepping on any toes in the real world. Filled with warnings about loss of individuality, independent thought, and at it’s core always; The need to know and trust oneself. Even just employing a tiny bit of mental energy could bring those to light, but not having to think about it… that was the aspect of the trick that happened only in the dream. As my dream self I entered the circus tent, I pulled back the curtain and the mysteries were laid bare to me. Dream logic layered onto Morrison’s comic logic and Stewart’s deceptively cartooney imagery became literally true and rational. It all felt right.

It was in this moment that I really grasped the basic truth of comic books. Through the use of symbolism and primal surrealism, they can be repositories for our most basic truths. They are how we can communicate our dreams to each other, and if we can share dreams, then we can share aspirations and aims.

As a child, I dabbled in studying art history. Unfortunately I was a very lazy child, and so my experimentation was somewhat superficial, and all that stuck with me, was a biography of Caravaggio that I had to cobble together with my half-hearted research. Remember, this was pre-internet, so I had to go to every library and art bookshop in London to try and seek out more information about the man and his work. What attracted me was his insane life-style. Nowadays he’d be shagging Paris Hilton on video and waving a gun around while speeding down Sunset Boulevard. But back then he rebelled by getting into fights with the law, with his friends, with tennis opponents, with strangers, with knights, with the church (the only real benefactor of artists back in those days), and eventually died of a fever, (possibly connected to syphilis, but who didn’t in those days?).

The salient point here though, is not that Caravaggio was a rock star in his time, but what art meant back then. The dawning of the 17th century was still a time in which many people couldn’t read, and even if they could, many of them were uneducated. The largest arena for story-telling, entertainment, and interaction, would be the church. Within the church, all services were in Latin, which meant that a great deal of the community would never understand the message. This is where art comes in. Caravaggio was frequently commissioned to create art which would depict various religious parables. He didn’t just do this by simply depicting Jesus arisen from the dead (for example), he showed Jesus at dinner with a couple of his disciples, explaining what had happened as they wildly gesticulate and and burst from their chairs in shock. No one was depicting the Son of God having dinner with his mates, in a very realistic and relatable environment. For the populace of the time, this would have been packed with small symbols which enriched and told the greater story. Painting like this were the comic books of the time, telling a complex story with intensity and immediacy.

In the baroque era, Caravaggio’s work stood out for his commitment to depicting reality. He always painted in an extremely naturalistic style, completely unheard of until then. One of his most famously incendiary, was his painting of the dead Madonna, where he showed her dirty feet. This incited outrage and created even more scandal around his name, but it was a lasting image of a real woman in death, her friends and family mourning the mother of Jesus. It had a weight and impact, there was a depth to the story being told in this one painting. This small nod to the dirty reality of life implanted the Virgin as having lived on this earth, with us. People weren’t always comfortable with this approach to art, but it gave the work an impact and immediacy that was sometimes missing from his contemporaries.

I’ve always been interested in the symbolism used in art, and had never really analyzed why until now. But upon waking from my dream in which something as purportedly mundane as Seaguy, Slaves of Mickey Eye blossomed forth it’s meaning, richly pouring out the strata of it’s various layers of symbols, I realize that my interest in artistic symbolism is really just an extension of my interest in communication. As I’ve said before, I feel that the act of combining words and imagery in comic books reinforces the story tellers ability to climb inside a person’s head; The stories plug a story more directly into a reader’s brain because the obtuse and surreal symbols can more quickly be understood in the unconscious mind. In many ways this is exactly what Caravaggio was doing; Using imagery and symbolism to tell a richer and more personal story than any words of scripture alone ever could. With it he reached a far greater audience on a far greater level than his religious patrons of the time ever imagined possible. Comics are a powerful tool for shaping people’s dreams. But back in the day, there was church sanctioned great art, which was putting forth one, consistent message. Now we have a plethora of visual media. It’s chaotic and uncontrolled and there seems to be little or no awareness of the importance or power of the visual medium. Let us hope that the comic book creators of today can work with as much candor, commitment to reality, and willingness to alter conscious thought through their own use of symbolism and surrealism as Caravaggio did once.


Sonia Harris is a supplanted Londoner who’s lived in San Francisco for so long that when she goes back, people say “You’re so optimistic.” It’s a little weird. If you like, you can send email to her at sonia@ifanboy.com in which you explain what the hell is going on in her head these days (please?)

Comments

  1. Or have you reassembled a view of Carravagios work like old bones mixed with appliances? Just kidding! Very nice article,I’ll be amazed if we see any of the user reviews for Seaguy expressing things as eloquently.

  2. Excellent article, you and Paul keep me coming back to iFanboy…and those other guys too…to a lesser degree. Just kidding. Love you all!

  3. I guess the best way to describe Morrison’s more odd works is dreamlike, and you have to read it not as a straight-forward story, but like when youre sleeping and trying to follow a really bizare dream youre having.

     

    This sounds and looks like a really crazy book, I’ll have to pick it up. Great article!

  4. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Always thought Caravaggio warranted a crazy biopic. I distinctly remember the day we covered his work in Art History and thinking about a parkour chase scene through a bazaar in Malta.  

  5. I found myself spending several extra seconds per page during this last issue of Seaguy and just eating up all the extra chunks of goodness.

    Great article!

  6. @Fugmo: I talked about Caravaggio, but many fine artists use symbolism to impart a richer story than first glance would convey.

    @PaulMontgomery: Apparently in 1986, Derek Jarman did make a film about him, it’s called Caravaggio.

  7. Wow, this is a really great article.  Thanks, Sonia!  Now I really want to step it up with my comic writing.  So many people don’t take comics seriously as an art-form, and it’s often easy to forget that what we are creating really is art, and doesn’t have to be just another throw-away magazine.  I forget that myself when I’m caught up in the grind of things. 

  8. If I even knew what this article was talking about, I’m sure I would say it was complete bollocks.

  9. Carvaggio and I are similar in that we both end up in physical altercations with our tennis partners.  (Sorry Dad!)

    I love the random weirdness in Doom Patrol.  Will I enjoy Seaguy?  (I’m ambivalent about Caravaggio, but I recognize the talent.)

  10. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Sonia – I mean like a major action blockbuster though! Something hyper kinetic with lots of jump cuts featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. "God looked out upon the darkness and said, let there be FIGHT!" Cue The Crystal Method.  

  11. @PaulMontgomery: I want to see that fucked up action movie, sounds better than Sid & Nancy!

  12. Didn’t Cavaggio actually kill someone over a tennis match?

  13. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    That’s one theory. He killed a guy, but it’s not completely clear what the circumstances were. 

  14. @edward: When I said fights, I meant duels. Most of them resulted in someone dying. The man wasn’t boring.

  15. that’s pretty fucking cool

  16. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    "Bungled castration" is one of the more horrifying phrases in the English language.  

  17. @Sonia: I wasn’t being critical of your choice of Caravaggio at all,I liked it.I was clumsily trying to reference the bit in issue 1 of Slaves of Mickey Eye with Professor Silvan Niltoid.I guess machinery would have been a better choice of word than appliances.I was struck by how nicely they expressed the concept when I first read the comic,the idea that any analysis of history could be flawed because subjective filters can get in the way.I was just trying to be clever and failed haha.

    It is also embarrassing that I spelt Caravaggio wrong in my first post after reading the word about ten times in 5 minutes.

  18. @Fugmo: Thanks for your comment and the kind words. I should have said that earlier, really didn’t mean to give you a hard time. Wouldn’t worry about spelling, I still spell "design" wrong 50% of the time, and it’s what I do all day.

  19. well, "bungled" is never a good word to hear. It’s followed by some idiot trying to explain why he did something really stupid… than there’s the testicle issue, paul

  20. Great article.

  21. awesome, dude. so many great lines: "if we can share dreams, then we can share aspirations and aims" is the one that really knocks me down. The thing that strikes me about the carravagio images you posted is the intense, uninterpretable physicality of them. like the jesus resurrection image. look at the guy with his elbows back: you don’t just see that posture, you feel that posture.

    that’s kinda how i feel about seaguy. people worry because they don’t ‘get it’, like they can’t crack some symbolic code. i just wanna say ‘don’t worry about it, just laugh at the absurdist awesomeness and let your unconscious/your feelings fill in the blanks.’ Don’t think about it, dream about it. 

    shoulda read this before i wrote my user review. wouldn’ta had to write it.

  22. I just got the three issues for this series, but didnt realize this was a sequel! I’m not sure if reading the first arc would have made the story make more sense, but very fun stuff nonetheless. I love Chubby!!!!!

  23. you gotta read it start-to-finish from the first series. but i’m glad you, comicBOOKchris still had fun. because this series is ultimately a huge barrel of fun.

  24. seaguy confuses me

  25. As you said, Caravaggio was creating a new realism but other than the Christian symbolism of winged angels etc, I can’t see the surreal elements particular to his work. My dreams are normally made up of realistic elements anyway so I suppose there could be a dream-like element to his work. Rather than his iconography/symbolism, it might be the way he places subjects in a dark, infinite space that is akin to my dreams.The more surreal artwork that exists in the world, like Seaguy, seems to me a bit of an artificial way to conjure up the dream-state or to relate to the subconscious. But perhaps people do have Dali-like dreams? Your point about Caravaggio being a like a comic artist of his time does ring true for me, I’d add film-maker to that. The sense of narrative is fundamental to the reading of his work. This year I spent a few months in Rome and every time I returned to the Caravaggio paintings, they seemed to have internally moved. It was like the narrative and movement was so fresh that the back of your head is telling you that this isn’t a static object. Anyway, it’s so good to have the masters of fine art brought into the arena of comics, keep it up!